After getting off trail for five days to attend a family wedding in Minnesota (Congrats Ben and Elisabeth!), enjoying greatly the company of my family, and getting in as many doggy cuddles as I could manage, I headed back to the trail June 11 on foot, at first. I walked to a local light rail train, caught a bus to Duluth, Minn., then caught two more buses to St. Ignace, Mich.
At 8 a.m. on June 13, I stood on the other side of “Big Mac,” the Mackinaw Bridge. Too excited to get hiking again, I started back on the trail straight off the bus despite getting almost no sleep.
Locals were having great fun regaling me with tales about how bad the bugs are this year. “The worst I’ve ever seen” is a phrase people keep using to describe the mosquitos, the flies, the ticks. “The wolves are a little intense this year,” a woman working at the St. Ignace bus station told me, reporting she’d seen four already this spring.
If I took too much to heart the things people say to me in town, I’d never go into the woods again. But the Upper Peninsula is completely new territory for me, and people who know the trail in this area use descriptors like “rugged” and “hard to follow.” I’ve been cautioned about the Trapp Hills, advised resupplying will be difficult, and been told not to plan to hike more than 15-miles a day west of Marquette. I’d been planning to do 20 miles a day. I appreciate all the information I can get, but sometimes knowing whose judgment to trust can be tricky.
I set off through Straights State Park, immediately noticing differences in the forest. Plants, mosses, ferns, and (gasp!) rocks more familiar to me from the hiking I’ve done in Minnesota’s north shore. I can tell I’m moving closer to the boreal forest.
The trail took me through town, and I decided to stop at the Museum of Ojibwa Culture as I think about the native peoples of this area a lot during my hike: how they lived, how the land shaped their lifestyle, culture and beliefs. I’m frustrated by my own ignorance, so I spent more than an hour there. June is “Strawberry” month. Each month is named for something related to nature, or the Great Spirit. I learned how extended families would come together during summer for specific hunting and gathering, and separate during winter for trapping season. I hope to learn much more about the Ojibway as I continue this hike.
Finally back in the woods, I saw only two groups on trail for this entire 10-day stretch to Grand Marais. The further I got, the crazier this seemed to me.
I disperse camped my first night after hiking 13 miles, despite my fatigue, but cut my hike short the next day and camped at Brevoort Lake when my 19-hour sleepless journey finally caught up to me.
At the M-123 trailhead, I reached in to grab the trail register and felt a feather-light tickling run across my fingers, a wolf spider is living in the box (I think it’s a wolf spider). I didn’t kill it or try to move it. Sorry everyone! I left a big warning visible on the register from the outside “THERE IS A SPIDER (WOLF?) IN HERE!”
I headed toward Guard Lake, where I planned to camp for the night, and suddenly found myself struck with pure awe at the towering, endless stretch of maples surrounding me. Their arching branches created the feeling of a cathedral. The understory was totally clear save for a blanket of wildflowers: trilliums, violets, ferns, as far as I could see. I was shocked when tears came to my eyes. The beauty of the trees had moved me that much. The “cathedral of the maples” lasted for miles, and I camped beneath their sentinel branches that night.
The next day brought the sudden eruption of the Niagara Escarpment, a the same rock formation over which The Niagara Falls thunders. Having hiked 400 miles without seeing many rocks, this giant formation shocked me into laughing out loud.
I ran into a group of Boy Scouts out for a day hike soon after. “6 months?!” they exclaimed when they heard how long I planned to be on trail. I love it when kids dig what I’m doing.
Despite the reports of heavy bugs, I’d been hiking without my head net more than with it, up until I reached the Pine River, a lovely, meandering, and half-swamp river. I was excited to head north into what appeared to be drier territory the next morning, but a large marsh to the west brought even denser bugs for most of the morning. Once the trail crossed into a timber harvest area that recently had been burned, the bugs lifted and the dozens of crows drew my attention with their raucous chattering. A sand hill crane took flight mere feet in front of me.
I sat down for a break at the Soldier Lake Spur, and quickly jumped right back up when I suddenly found 12 ticks on me. I swatted then off my legs, threw my gear out of the high grass, checked it for ticks and took off. That was the worst tick patch I’ve seen so far.
After several days and almost 100 miles of totally manageable bugs, my Minnesota pride started rearing its twisted head. “If this is the worst bugs people have ever seen in the UP,” I thought, “Minnesota wins the Worst Bugs title. Or loses, I guess.” But I quickly took my thought back. I still have hundreds of miles to go and the bugs could get much worse.
After a lunch at Stump Lake where the dragon flies danced around me, I headed up into hard wood ridges and the bugs disappeared. I dry camped in a clearing covered in deer tracks. Right as dark fell, the sound of something large stalking through the woods made my pulse quicken. Then the tell-tale bugle of a deer call issued from the darkening forest and I relaxed. I felt a little bad as I suspected I’d stolen its favorite place to bed down for the night. What do deer look for in a bed? This is one of the millions of questions I’ve asked about the creatures who call the forest home as I hike.
The next morning, I packed up quickly, eager to get hiking as I was just a few miles from reaching Lake Superior, Gitchi-Gami. I know its Minnesota shore like the back of my hand. I was dying to see what this lake I love looked like in the UP.
Stunning. It is stunning. And there is no one up here. Finding a solitary moment on a Lake Superior beach in Minnesota is a rarity. Since reaching her shores, I’ve found myself time and time again alone with her majesty.
I jumped into the lake to get water and cool a reaction to some poisonous plant on my leg that had been driving me crazy. Mosquito bites paled in comparison. I must’ve hit a poisonous plant while in lower peninsula Michigan as the itching set in as soon as I got back to Minnesota. The reaction would last almost two weeks.
The trail followed the lake for the next few miles. My heart sang and my feet flew. My next goal of the day was to make it to the Silver Creek Pub for a cheeseburger. After Bark Dock, the trail got very swampy as it shared first a snowmobile trail and then a dirt road destroyed by heavy logging machinery. I struggled through the sucking mud, the siren call of a cheeseburger and ice cold coke urging me forward. I have not been happier to reach a road walk on this entire hike.
At Silver Creek, I met wonderful folks who asked me fun questions about my hike, including Vicky, the bartender and NCT Trail maintainer of the Tahqua Trail segment in the state park where I’d be hiking the next day. As I packed up to head on to Tahquamenon State Park, Vicky let me know that Buck, one of the men at the bar, had purchased my meal. Thank you for your kindness, Buck!
Tahquamenon State Park generously allowed me to ship a box of supplies to the park, and even shuttled the box to the Rivermouth Campground, miles away from the main office. I’d booked the closest campsite to the trail and was blown away to find it a gorgeous site right on the swollen, smooth waters of the river. I pitched my tent in sunset mode, rain fly rolled part way up, and fell asleep to the river turning pink as it reflected the sinking sun.
I followed the river most of the day through the huge state park. I needed to hike 22 miles to the western side of the park. A hot, bug-filled morning slowed my pace, and the prospect of night hiking seemed certain. At the Lower Falls, I stopped and enjoyed a root beer float, and marveled at the beauty of the falls as a light rain fell. The River Trail, the four mile trail that runs between the lower and upper falls, reminded me of the Superior Hiking Trail with its cedar trees, river views, and mud. A beaver crossed the trail 10 feet in front of me.
If I hadn’t been racing the sunset, I would’ve hiked this gorgeous trail much more slowly. As I reached the lower falls with still 2.5 miles to go at 8:45 p.m., I seriously considered asking someone for a ride back to the campground at the lower falls. My feet throbbed. I felt like I couldn’t hike another step. But I kept going.
The trail out to my backcountry campsite was crowned with old growth pines, some 500 years old, a sign told me as night stole into the forest. I was nearly running at this point, but still couldn’t help but be blown away at the beauty of these old trees lining huge bogs. The bugs in this section of the park were approaching “apocalyptic” levels. I found the campsite just as I needed to put on my headlamp, and rushed to set up camp. I discovered my head lamp is not bright enough for night hiking, for my comfort level anyway, and dove into my tent. I’d hiked from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. and was exhausted to my bones.
I wanted to get up early the next morning as Patty and Dave Warner we’re camped out up the trail at the Mouth of the Two-Hearted River campground, and we planned to meet up, but I could not roust myself before 8 a.m. The cloud of mosquitos got me moving quickly though.
Despite my exhaustion the night before, I fairly danced up the trail, noting the changing wildflowers, clarity of the blue sky, the pine smell of the forest.
I rounded a bend toward the end of the day and was shocked to find myself in a burn area, I’d forgotten about the forest fire that had burned this stretch of forest years earlier. The stark beauty of the burned trees bleached by the sun contrasted against the pure blue of the sky and healthy green of new growth: oaks, maples, pines, and lots of blueberries.
Having not seen more than a couple people this whole stretch, Patty scared me a bit when suddenly she was in front of me on the trail. I laughed and gave her a hug. We walked into camp together. She showed me where the river flowed into Lake Superior. She and Dave planned to canoe down the river the next day.
Patty, Dave and I had a delicious dinner of chicken thighs, fresh corn, grilled beet, and potato salad, then headed down to the beach to watch the sunset over the lake.
Patty and Dave offered to shuttle me the next day so I could slack pack, and I wanted to kiss her feet. My feet were starting to feel like hamburger again at the end of this 10-mile stretch doing about 20 miles a day.
The next 20 miles of trail were all along Lake Superior. I grinned ear to ear, seriously befuddled as to why I was the only one on the trail. I enjoyed the alone time with Lake Superior. In Minnesota, we didn’t keep much of our Lake Superior shoreline public land aside from state parks that are some of the most visited in the state. To find a 40-mile stretch of public lakeshore deserted boggled my mind.
I crossed the 500-mile mark, and exceeded my previous longest hike of 516 miles. Every step I take now will be the furthest I’ve ever hiked.
I had to do a bit more bushwhacking in this section. It is remote, with fewer people around to maintain the trail, and many trees were down across the trail, especially near the sandy cliffs along the lake. I made it through just fine. Flooding in Muskallonge State Park routed me down a road instead of through the park. A magical moment came when a tiny fawn suddenly popped out of the forest. A group of ATV riders stopped, as did I, and finally the dawn darted across the road. I’ve been seeing a lot of tiny deer tracks in the woods.
I forded my first river of the trip soon after. With how high the water has been, and getting rerouted due to flooding just before the crossing. I was nervous and excited by the crossing. I don’t have much experience with fording rivers. I made it just fine.
I sent Dave and Patty a message using my InReach Delorme, my satellite communicator. Neither of us had cell service in this remote stretch of the UP. We’d planned to meet at a campground a couple miles up the trail at 8 p.m. but I was running behind schedule. I got no response and sent another. And another. Now starting to worry something had happened to them on their canoe trip, I emerged from the woods at Perry’s Landing to find them walking toward me. Just then, their reply message arrived on my InReach. A full hour had passed between sending my message and them receiving it. We loaded up and headed back to a warm campfire and roasted s’mores.
The next morning, we parted ways as I headed into Grand Marais and they moved to another campsite. Patty and Dave, thank you for your friendship!
I asked myself a question this section: Can I hike 10 days straight without a rest day. I can, but I limped my way into Grand Marais straight up to a cheeseburger. I won’t be doing that long of a stretch again.
I head into Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore now, and will do lower miles to savor the experience. My feet are grateful.
Section: St. Ignace to Grand Marais
Total miles: 536.75